Ex­press your­self!

Dress to im­press, have a joke up your sleeve and flout rule num­ber one – NEVER men­tion her age! – at your peril... More’s Louise Gan­non re­calls her SEVEN bruis­ing bouts with pop’s punchi­est star

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - MORE COVER STORY -

Adecade ago I sat in a suite in the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel in Bev­erly Hills await­ing an au­di­ence with Madonna. It was a mat­ter of weeks ahead of her 50th birth­day and the be­gin­ning of her eighth con­cert tour (Sweet & Sticky) to pro­mote her 11th stu­dio al­bum, Hard Candy. Eight writ­ers from around the world had been hand-se­lected. There was ten­sion in the room – there al­ways is with Madonna – be­cause there was one rule she was in­sist­ing ev­ery jour­nal­ist fol­low: UN­DER NO CIR­CUM­STANCES CAN YOU ASK HER ABOUT TURN­ING 50.

I was the last per­son to speak to her that day. The jour­nal­ist be­fore me, a ner­vous Ital­ian, was led out of her in­ter­view room af­ter less than 15 min­utes and look­ing close to tears. He had not asked the for­bid­den ques­tion; he’d done some­thing far worse. He had bored her with te­dious queries and then sat in ter­ri­fied si­lence, flip­ping through his note­book as she de­manded: ‘Ask me some­thing in­ter­est­ing.’ He was struck dumb so she waved her hand for him to be re­moved.

She was wear­ing a black leather jacket, black trousers and a scowl when I walked in. On a pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sion she had told me she en­joys be­ing in ‘bitch mode’. I was pre­pared. She com­pli­mented me on my out­fit (I was wear­ing gold san­dals from her 2007 H&M col­lec­tion be­cause I’d in­ter­viewed her six times be­fore and know she takes in ev­ery tiny de­tail) and I grinned. ‘We’ve been told not to ask you about turn­ing 50,’ I said. ‘But you’re a fem­i­nist, you’re a trail­blazer and women want to know how you are go­ing to han­dle 50.’

‘You’ve bro­ken the rule,’ she said firmly. ‘Yes,’ I an­swered, mak­ing sure I gave direct eye con­tact. ‘Be­cause that’s what you’ve taught women to do. I’m only fol­low­ing your lead.’ She burst out laugh­ing. I had a longer au­di­ence than any­one else that day, and when I left she rec­om­mended a Viet­namese mas­sage cen­tre on Sun­set to deal with jet lag. I tried her rec­om­men­da­tion – it was pure tor­ture. I won­dered whether it was a joke on me or a les­son in what it takes to be Madonna: take ev­ery­thing to the ex­treme. Ten years ago, she gave me her man­i­festo for age­ing: ‘I’m not go­ing to be de­fined by my age. Why should any woman? I’m not go­ing to slow down, get off this ride, stay home and get fat. No way... I will cer­tainly never get fat. I don’t ever want to stop learn­ing, liv­ing, lov­ing – I want more, more, more.’

The first time I met her was in 1989 (the year she di­vorced first hus­band Sean Penn), when she had just had a $5m con­tract with Pepsi re­voked af­ter the Vat­i­can con­demned her for the Like A Prayer video, which fea­tured burn­ing crosses, stig­mata and her mak­ing love to a saint in a dream se­quence.

She was (slightly) less in­tim­i­dat­ing then, with cropped, curly per­ox­ide hair and dressed like an off-duty dancer in black sweats. But Madonna doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily give in­ter­views – she gives tests. She said I had to tell her a joke. ‘What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a rock star and a dic­ta­tor?’ She shook her head. ‘You can ne­go­ti­ate with a dic­ta­tor.’ She laughed. How did she feel be­ing banned by the Pope and los­ing $5m? ‘I got to No.1 all over the world, didn’t I?’ she said. ‘And I’m not here just to en­ter­tain peo­ple. I’m here to make them think. I want to push bound­aries. Or else, what’s the point? I’m not afraid to be the sort of artist who makes you

ques­tion ev­ery­thing – peo­ple can hate me or love me, but as long as I make them think, that’s all I care about.’

When she first ex­ploded on the scene in 1980, a raw, pretty dancer on New York’s arty club scene, whose boyfriends in­cluded graf­fiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, she just seemed – as she once told me – like an­other ‘piece of ass to be ex­ploited for a fast buck’.

‘Be­ing un­der­es­ti­mated is a very pow­er­ful po­si­tion to be in,’ she said. ‘No one ex­pected a woman to make a deal, break a deal and make de­mands. Peo­ple call you a bitch and a ball-breaker. No one calls a pow­er­ful man that. No one asks can he cook and look af­ter his chil­dren. F*** that. If it takes be­ing a bitch, I’ll be a bitch.’

When you’re in a room with her, she is in con­trol. She likes to be seated al­ready, and there is usu­ally a large book in front of her con­tain­ing her sched­ule for the day, which must be ad­hered to. And she has al­ways rel­ished her man-eater im­age. ‘I’m not ashamed of my sex­u­al­ity – what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gan­der,’ she said in 1996. Mean­while, she also told me the rea­son she fell for Guy Ritchie was ‘be­cause he said “No” to me, and that is some­thing I couldn’t re­sist’.

She can be sur­pris­ingly funny – she can even laugh at her­self. Ritchie used to mock her ou­tra­geous out­fits. ‘Some­times, I’ve come down the stairs all dressed up. He gives me a look and says: “Who are you go­ing as tonight, then?” Isn’t that a great put-down?’ And she took great plea­sure in her daugh­ter’s em­bar­rass­ment of be­ing taken to school by her. ‘“You’re not wear­ing that, are you?” is what she says to me pretty much each time.’

I’ve asked Madonna many times what it is that drives her. ‘I am en­tirely a prod­uct of my child­hood – I have dealt with a lot of my demons, but the big­gest one is still to do with my mother dy­ing when I was young.

‘As I child I had no con­trol. I felt the world around me was chaotic and I needed to have some con­trol, which would en­able me to pull my­self up by my boot­straps. That’s when the self-dis­ci­pline started. It was my way of sur­vival. I started off want­ing to be a nun like the ones at my school be­cause they lived this in­cred­i­ble or­dered life and they moved around in this grace­ful way. Then I re­alised I loved boys, so that was out. Then I found dance, and it was this world where you had to achieve re­sults – no tricks, no short­cuts. It’s how I’ve lived my life for­ever. When I hung out in clubs in New York and ex­per­i­mented with drugs I hated be­ing out of con­trol. I’d drink wa­ter to get them out of my sys­tem.

‘In life I have to be en­gaged, to be learn­ing, do­ing, liv­ing. I’ve never wanted to be dis­en­gaged or to miss a mo­ment.’

I’m glad not to have missed a mo­ment in her com­pany be­cause women like Madonna are rare. You can­not pre­dict how she is go­ing to re­act to any ques­tion or what words are go­ing to come out of her mouth. There is no such thing as com­pla­cency in her world – even at 60.

Madonna, we salute you.

POST PUNK: Des­per­ately Seek­ing Su­san (1985)

ABOVE: Madonna pre­pares for a grilling. Left: pos­ing for Rebel Heart, 2015

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